Friday, October 26, 2018

Parashat VaYera: "Here I Am!"

"Here I Am!"
Thoughts on VaYera 2018
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We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers – and with good reason. We have never looked for ourselves – so how are we ever supposed to find ourselves? (Friedrich Nietzsche)[1]

In order for the trial to be authentic, it would necessitate that Avraham act totally within the limits of his free will. This is borne out by the not insignificant detail that Avraham was addressed by his personal name. (R. Avraham Y. Kook)[2]

The formative years of Avraham’s life are bookended by parallel episodes. His first and last dialogues with God were each initiated by the command of lekh lekha – “go forth.” Both missions entailed separating from family – at first leaving his “land, birthplace and father’s home” (Ber. 12:2) and later parting with Yisshak at the Akedah (22:2). And each of the trials was accompanied by God’s subsequent promise of blessing and bountiful offspring.

Avraham is the personality in the Torah who is most often associated with hesed. He demonstrated that trait by caring for and mentoring his nephew Lot, begging Sarah not to send away Yishmael, and sitting at his tent’s entrance in search of needy travelers. Ironically, however, most of his life’s critical moments were actually characterized by separation from others. In a life framed by the famous departures of lekh lekha, Avraham was forcibly separated from his wife Sarah upon descent into Egypt, from Lot upon return to Canaan and from Yishmael when he finally settled down. What was God’s intended message to Avraham with those many separations?

Consider the Zohar’s unique explanation of God’s initial command to Avraham:
R. Shimon said: … ‘Lekh lekha’ – To perfect yourself. ‘From your land’ – From the place of dwelling within you, in which you consider the wisdom with which you were born. ‘To the land that I will show you’ – There it will be revealed to you that which you seek, the power that is appointed over it (the land), which is deep and hidden.[3]
God’s repeated command of lekh lekha entailed more than a simple call to “go forth” (lekh). It called for a courageous act of individuality (lekha). He challenged Avraham to “go for himself,” forcing him to struggle through the difficult process of identifying himself. “This verse is addressed to every person,” the great kabbalist R. Moshe Zacuto wrote. It teaches us to “Search and discover the root of your soul, so that you can fulfill it and restore it to its source; its essence.”[4]

Albert Einstein once marveled at the potential for individuality: “To see with one’s own eyes, to feel and judge without succumbing to the suggestive power of the fashion of the day, to be able to express what one has seen and felt in a trim sentence or even in a cunningly wrought word – is that not glorious?”[5] But the best-selling author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s expressed the difficulties that are posed to self-expression by of our lives as social beings:
It is relatively easy to become involved with a job, to enjoy the company of friends, to be entertained in a theater or at a concert. But what happens when we are left to our own devices? Alone, when the dark night of the soul descends, are we forced into frantic attempts to distract the mind from its coming? Or are we able to take on activities that are not only enjoyable, but make the self grow?[6]
Although Avraham was naturally inclined to surround himself with others – as a mentor, guide and leader, God time and again forced him to distance himself from them and grapple with the important questions: Who am I? and What are my true convictions and beliefs?

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l reflected upon the unique challenge posed by the modern world to our self-identity and expression. “Urban life has contributed to the anonymity and loneliness-experience of the individual,” he wrote, “What man fails to comprehend is not the world around him, but the world within him, particularly his destiny, and the needs of which he is supposed to have a clear awareness.” Our constant thought and speech about “what we need” is misleading. We misunderstand ourselves. And that leads us in the wrong direction along the route of life. R. Soloveitchik explained: “Man responds quickly to the pressure of certain needs, not knowing whose needs he is out to gratify…adoption of a wrong table of needs is a part of the human tragic destiny.”[7]

The challenge is real. Distracted by others, we lose sight of our true identity. How can we regain our focus and discover the inner-self that lies beneath? R. Norman Lamm once remarked: “I have never known a really creative person who did not precede the creative act with at least a moment of profound, thoughtful solitude.” He explained that our creative spirit is forged “in the silence of the mind when the outside world is shout out.”[8] In the presence of others it would be difficult for Avraham to distinguish his individual thoughts from those of the group. In solitude, his true self could emerge.

Approaching Avraham for his final challenge at the Akedah, God prefaced the command by calling out his name: “Avraham!” (22:1) He challenged Avraham to answer the call of his true self-identity. And Avraham courageously responded “Hineni – Here I am!” His single-word response reflected his confidence in completing the ultimate test of his life’s mission – self-identity. “One is tempted to suggest that Abraham, by responding as he does, almost passes the test even before it begins,” Leon Kass wrote, “he knows who is calling and before whom he stands and he makes himself fully available to a source beyond himself.”[9]

As the frightening encounter atop the mountain neared its end, God’s messenger reappeared to Avraham and addressed him: “Avraham, Avraham!” Avraham then understood that his life’s mission was complete. Having achieved a genuine self-identity, he became the model for future seekers of God. And so, he confidently responded “Hineni – Here I am!”

[1] Preface to On the Genealogy of Morals (Cambridge, UK, 2017).
[2] The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (Jerusalem, IS, 2017), pg. 53.
[3] Zohar, Parashat Lekh Lekha, 76b.
[4] Printed in R. Shalom Buzaglo’s Mikdash Melekh (Bnei Brak, IS, 1974), 1:70b. Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1983), pg. 127.
[5] Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York, NY, 1994), pg. 18.
[6] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY, 1990), pg. 171.
[7] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 71-72.
[8] R. Norman Lamm, Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 221, and Derashot LeDorot: Shemot (New Milford, CT, 2013), pg. 48.
[9] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 335.